“ Address: Guild House, Upper St Martin's Lane, London, WC2H 9EG. Tel +44 (0)20 7 379 6000. Main trades and industries: performance workers in theatre, film television, radio and variety „
How do you become a professional actor? Do you spend years and years training, cleaning cod-pieces and learning lines, then serve an apprenticeship to a master, who served their own apprenticeship to a master? Actually, no, you simply say 'I'm a professional actor'. Doing so, doesn't make you any money or give people the desire to ask for your autography, it certainly doesn't put food on the table. With so many people wanting to be professional performers - sorry, with so many people wanting to be famous - there needs to be some guardian of such fragile egos, a gatekeeper to ensure there are some professional standards. That's Equity's job.
Equity is the trade union representing the interests of performing artists. Most familiarly associated with actors, the union has a diverse membership from stage managers and choreographers to radio presenters and circus artists. Since its formation in 1930, its main aim has been the negotiation of minimum conditions for performers, taking into account the changing face of entertainment.
In recent years contentious issues have included repeat fees - the money payable for repetitive use of an artists work, such as advertisements, and ways to embrace the technology of the internet, while ensuring artists receive what they are reasonably entitled to - copyright and intellectual property are the hot-potatoes of the moment. The union also works hard to support retired artists or those who have fallen on hard times.
Equity has always been seen as the gate-keeper of the entertainment world in the UK, complex, contradictory and with an over-inflated sense of worth. The old adage used to be that a person could not be a professional artist in this country unless they were a member of Equity, and they could not be a member of Equity unless they were a professional artist. This Catch-22 situation could only be overcome through luck and the taking on of less-than-glamorous contracts until a minimum number of performance hours had been accumulated.
When I decided to join, the reality was considerably easier than I had been led to believe. I don't know how much of the complexities of applying were genuine or the result of urban myths and mischievous performers. I needed proof of being offered a professional contract, signed by the director with details of what I was actually doing - in my case, acting. It wasn't for a long period of time, and it was certainly closer to minimum wage than Hollywood jackpot.
Joining the union did however get me the Equity card, the 'universally recognised symbol of your status as a professional'. It also meant I reserved the rights to my name. Had there been another member with the same name, I would have had to use a different one. Another benefit was the knowledge that if I came into a dispute with an employer, I would have representation and a ready source of advice. Additional advice is available on contract negotiation and payment of taxes.
Members are automatically covered with accident and backstage insurance. A friend of mine sustained a serious injury during a performance, and Equity provided her with a subsistence allowance during her recuperation. Members also have Public Liability insurance, although fire-eaters and stage hypnotists have to make additional contributions.
Four times a year, a magazine is delivered through your door and you also get a diary with the Equity logo on it. The website is informative and regularly updated - have a look on www.equity.org.uk. As a member you are able to access an exclusive area, with job listings divided up into different areas of specialism, such as opera acting.
There are other benefits, found on the website or printed in the magazine. The one I have made most use of has been the half-price membership of a dance studio in London, saving me nearly £100.
The cost of membership depends on how much you have earned professionally during the previous year. The minimum amount is £129 for earnings up to £20,000. Artists earning more than £50,000 contribute 1% of their gross income. As a student on certain performance-related courses, you are entitled to discounted membership for the duration of your course. Prospectuses and websites will have further information if their courses are accredited.
I have never needed the expertise or support of Equity, but I have been impressed with the way they represent their members' interests. An average professional performer works long hours, with little job security for little money, but we only tend to see the glamorous end of the industry. Campaigns, such as naming and shaming theatres with unsafe, unhygienic or simply inappropriate back-stage facilities, have improved the working life of those in the entertainment industry. Should you be taking your first steps into the world of entertainment, you should try and have Equity looking out for you.